Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
No state for drinking when the pubs have no cheer Elizabeth Farrelly
Elizabeth Farrelly writes on design and architecture issues for the Herald.
SOME CITIES learn from history; others blithely obliterate. Some find ways to guard the small, the intricate, the local; others learn too late, or not at all.
Most cities, these days, deplore the way all those 1950s ministers who removed trams the world over awoke next day reborn as tyre-company executives. Some even ban such moves. Others, like Sydney, just shrug and look away as premiers slide noiselessly from Macquarie S to Macquarie B. It’s almost as if we expect no better – from them or for ourselves.
Here’s another. Remember the 6 o’clock swill? No, of course you don’t. But you’ve heard the tales, right? The ritual filling-of-the-jars, the 5 o’clock rush-to-inebriate, the synchronised public vomiting. The argument, back then, was that loosening the curfew would spew our Neanderthal drinking habits across all hours and all walks of life. In fact the opposite occurred. Decompressing drink time diluted drink madness. But wowserism persists. And, hand-in-hand with state-nannyism, it’s about to drop us straight back into the gently smiling jaws of the huge (and hugely ALP-funding) hotel lobby.
The vehicle is the new NSW Liquor Bill 2005, drafted in grudging response to Canberra’s National Competition Policy, which found the states’ liquor-rationing habits anti-competitive. Since then, Victoria, WA, SA and the ACT have all liberalised their laws to enhance the grain and vitality of city life. It works, invigorating the town, enhancing tourism and actually – get this – reducing alcohol consumption. Even in Wellington, New Zealand, with just 163,000 humans, 697 licensed cafes, clubs and niche bars now enrich the scene; the highest bar-per-capita ratio in the world.
But NSW, the Rum Corps state, drags the chain. Not because we don’t fantasise about being able to pop in for a pastis before work, should the mood arise. We do. But because we, unlike the French or even the Kiwis, can’t be trusted with liquor. Nanny Knows Best. Even the City of Sydney Council, our cultural guardian, is antiliberalisation, arguing in its submission to the bill that more outlets automatically means more alcohol and worse behaviour. So the legislation languishes in the in-tray. Which is fine because, even when enacted, it won’t change much.
Personally, I wouldn’t care, except for the decivilising effect on the city.
Already we’ve seen the death-by-market-forces of the corner shop, the neighbourhood bank, the local cinema and possibly even local government. Now it seems the small drinking establishment may be next to go. Not only is the niche bar Sydneysiders fantasise about stillborn; the corner pub itself seems headed for the high jump.
It’s that old unholy alliance between liquor and gambling, and while poker machines are often credited with keeping pubs alive – so-called “rivers of gold” – they’re actually the prime murder suspect. Story as follows.
My local – which could easily be yours – is one of the last old-style pubs in the ‘hood. The old “ladies entrance” is still etched on glass and the regulars say “G’day” as you enter. It’s well patronised and well loved. Soon, though, it’ll close for good. Why? Because it’s been bought, lock, stock and freehold, for its eight pokie licences, which will be transferred to a venue nearer the gambling central that is Chinatown. The average NSW pub pokie makes $66,000 profit per year per machine; in Chinatown, it could be twice that. Times eight, and you get the motive.
In 2000, the Carr government made pokie licences tradeable. It also capped total numbers. This keeps prices high; a pokie licence, or “entitlement”, can fetch $150,000. A Castle Hill hotel is said to have sold recently for $53 million; the building itself was worth just a few hundred thousand. And there’s this: of every three pokies traded, one goes directly to the government – allowing it to invest in vice while simultaneously being seen to curb it. This has made gambling as much a government addiction as a social one.
What will happen to my local, no one’s saying. The building, sans licences, amounts to a free development site. What won’t happen, though, is an attractive little apartment building with a smoky jazz bar or groovy hole-in-the-wall tequila bar at its base.
How do I know this? Because both the new bill and existing law make it virtually impossible. The official spin is all about simpler, cheaper process.
But fact is closer in spirit to the new planning act: abolish the Licensing Court (dangerously independent) and the Liquor Administration Board, so concentrating vast discretion – to investigate, prosecute, judge and penalise – in the director, a bureaucrat answerable directly to (you guessed it) the minister. The notorious “needs test” goes, only to be replaced by the social impact assessment, demonstrating public benefit. This is no small ask, and can cost more than $100,000 to prepare, with no guarantee of success.
For Sydney drinkers, then, the future is bright, not to say garish. We can expect more, bigger, louder: more Coogee Bay Hotel, less (say) Blue Note. It’s all down to the ubiquitous pokie, and it gives bold new meaning to the saying “meet you in the hotel lobby”.
PHOTO: Photo: Andrew Quilty